Religion an Issue in Mexico Vote
Aug. 19, 2000
PLAN DE AYALA, Mexico (AP) _ The sweet sound of hymns sung in Tojolabal rises from a congregation kneeling beneath banana trees beside the bare pillars of a ruined house.
For the first time in more than two months, the Seventh Day Adventists of this Indian town celebrated Saturday's services near the remains of their homes, which were destroyed in March when hundreds of men armed with torches and machetes terrorized the village and sent Protestants fleeing.
In the past three decades, more than 30,000 people _ most of them evangelical Protestants _ have been forced from their villages in Chiapas state for challenging Indian religious orthodoxy and refusing to participate in the alcohol-laden festivals that mix standard Catholicism and Indian religions. Sought in the March attacks that destroyed many of the homes are a farm cooperative president and municipal representative.
``I don't have a house, but I trust in God,'' said Juan Vasquez Alvarez, one of the Adventists.
Saturday's church services came after officials mediated an agreement in which Protestants agreed to perform community tasks in place of participation in the festivals.
Many think Sunday's gubernatorial election could help solve what may be the hemisphere's most dramatic crisis of religious rights.
The candidate leading in the polls, Pablo Salazar, is a Protestant Sunday school teacher and a Church of the Nazarene member referred to as ``Brother Pablo'' in some religious publications.
Never before, Salazar says, has a practicing Protestant been elected governor in Mexico, where even devout members of the dominant Catholic Church have been viewed with suspicion by a militantly secular political establishment.
New President-elect Vicente Fox made front-page news recently merely by attending a Mass and participating in Communion.
A few see Salazar's candidacy literally as providential.
``He comes chosen by God,'' insisted Mariano Gomez Gomez, who attended a Salazar rally in a neighborhood of San Cristobal de las Casas inhabited by thousands of Protestants expelled from the Tzotzil town of Chamula.
The agreement that allowed for Saturday's services was written into the town's land rights law.
``It is the first agreement (of that type) on the national level,'' said Hortensio Vasquez, regional legal adviser for the Seventh Day Adventist Church.
But the precedent follows decades of official reluctance to move against Indian leaders who have produced unanimous town votes for the PRI.
``The church had to exist for many years as if the PRI were directed by God,'' said Antonio Alfaro, a Presbyterian minister in Las Margaritas who was aiding the refugees from Plan de Ayala, 12 miles north.
He said PRI officials preached religious liberty, ``but there are thousands of expellees. That is not liberty.'' He said he is supporting Salazar, after determining that ``he is a Christian.''
Salazar has tried to maintain good relations with Catholics and religion has not been an overt issue in the campaign.
In a recent news conference, he said he would apply the law to halt expulsions and would use education as a long-term solution.
A few blocks from Saturday's service, Carlampo Hernandez scraped peeling paint from the white Catholic church _ one of the shared-labor tasks required of all men in town.
``It's quiet now,'' he said, insisting he was not bothered by the agreement with the Protestants.
But just to make sure, two dozen state policemen were camped at the entrance of the town taking down the names of passers-by.